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Rover Curiosity is a star, but can it help fund future of Mars exploration?

The steady stream of enticing photographs from the rover Curiosity may be wowing scientists and the public, but NASA is facing serious budgetary constraints on the future of Mars exploration.

By Staff writer / August 11, 2012

This mosaic image shows part of the left side of NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars and two blast marks from the descent stage's rocket engines. Several small bits of rock and soil, which were made airborne by the rocket engines, are visible on the rover's top deck.

JPL-Caltech/NASA/REUTERS

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NASA's Mini Cooper-sized rover Curiosity has spent the past week wowing the mission's scientists, engineers, and the public with each new set of photos it sends and each indication that everything on the one-ton, pencil-necked robot is working virtually flawlessly.

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Given all the good news, you'd think that the Mars exploration program is hale and hearty.

Instead, the agency is in the final stages of a major overhaul of its robotic exploration effort at Mars. In the past, such overhauls have come after spectacular failures – after the loss of the Mars Observer orbiter in 1993 and again after the loss of two more missions in 1999.

This time, it's coming as the world celebrates the initial success of the most daring attempt at a Mars landing yet on a mission that begins the hunt for evidence that Gale Crater, with its imposing three-mile-high central summit, could once have supported life.

The reason for the overhaul?

"It's purely budgetary," says Bruce Jakosky, a researcher at the University of Colorado in Boulder and the lead scientist on the final mission on the current Mars agenda, the MAVEN orbiter.

The White House proposed a $4.91 billion science budget for NASA for fiscal 2013, which starts Oct. 1. That's a 3 percent cut over last year's spending. Within that broad category, however, the administration sought $1.19 billion for planetary-science, a 20 percent cut. And the Mars program garnered a $360.8 million request, a cut of 38.5 percent.

The conundrum is largely one of the agency's own making, says Roger Launuis, a former historian at NASA and now curator of planetary exploration programs at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum in Washington.

The James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the highly successful Hubble Space Telescope currently on orbit, has seen its price tag expand from a 1997 estimate of about $500 million to build and launch to nearly $9 billion today. Its launch date has shifted by more than four years to a planned launch in October 2018, according to the Government Accountability Office.

For all its success and promise, Curiosity also overshot its budget. Since 2008, the cost for the now-$2.5 billion mission grew by $881 million. Technical challenges during development delayed its launch by two years.

Given the current budget climate, Congress appears unwilling to offset the overruns, Dr. Launius says. Nor has the Office of Management and Budget been inclined to tuck anything extra into NASA's budget to ease the squeeze.

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